Kicking up the dust

The sudden rise in political temperature in Karnataka over the last three weeks would make one wonder whether a general election is round the corner. No, the 26-month-old BJP government is seemingly stable, the convulsions of last October, when over 40 ruling-party MLAs briefly rebelled against chief minister B S Yeddyurappa have subsided, the Reddy brothers are on the defensive and the Opposition is in no position to bring down the government. There is nothing to suggest that the BJP government’s tenure is coming to a premature end.

And yet, there is no denying that a sense of instability haunts the Yeddyurappa government and it is forced to constantly indulge in fire-fighting that adversely affects the administration of the state. That the visiting British prime minister David Cameron, who made a customary call at Infosys, a business trip to the HAL and had a brief interaction with the governor, had no meeting fixed with the chief minister, tells its own tale. The ‘business-minded’ Cameron delegation perhaps felt that a chief minister pre-occupied with political battle of his own would have little to offer them.

From the chief minister’s utterances and body language, it is abundantly clear that the state Congress leaders have upped the ante for him by undertaking a padayatra from Bangalore to Bellary to highlight the ‘loot’ of the state’s resources. The enthusiastic public response to the 320 km-long, 15-day padayatra has not only served to rejuvenate the moribund Congress, but it has succeeded in bringing into sharp focus the chief minister’s Achilles heel — the total helplessness to deal with daylight robbery in the name of mining, legal or illegal, which is milking the state of crores of rupees a day.

Yeddyurappa may be right when he says that it is unfair to hold him alone responsible for the illegal mining as previous governments, including that of the Congress and the JD(S), had also winked at such activities and it is no secret that some Congressmen too are into mining of iron ore and granite. He is also perfectly justified in blaming the Central government for being a ‘partner’ with private miners in the plunder of mineral wealth as it has consistently turned a deaf ear to states’ plea to link royalties to the market price of the minerals.

But Yeddyurappa fails to convince anyone with his argument for three reasons: One, you cannot expect people to condone your crimes by pointing fingers at others. Two, there is no comparison in the scale of operations between that of the Reddy brothers and some smalltime Congress leaders whom the chief minister has named; the Reddy brothers being part of the government have enjoyed extraordinary protection and even complicity from official machinery to rake in huge profits. Three, blaming the Centre carries little conviction when you hand over the entire administration of the mining districts to the miners as if it is their personal fiefdom to do what they please.

No response
The Congress padayatra, if nothing else, has caused enough consternation to the chief minister to make him proactive in dealing with illegal mining. At the recent National Development Council meeting in New Delhi, he openly advocated a ban on export of iron ore, but found no positive response from the Centre.

Now, in a bold move, the Yeddyurappa government has not only restricted the movement of iron ore supplies only to the steel mills operating within the state, but also asked the mines and geology department not to issue mineral dispatch permits for export of iron ore from any of the state’s 10 minor ports which are within its jurisdiction. Exports, with proper documents, will be permitted only through the Mangalore port, which operates under the Union shipping ministry.

It is said that the chief minister has given clear instructions to officials that illegal mining should come to an end and that the movement of ore should be strictly monitored — a far cry from a situation even a few days ago when over 5,000 trucks were being allowed to ferry ore daily, largely without permits, with utter disregard for the environment and the carrying capacity of roads.

Some of the miners have protested saying the ban on export will hurt their businesses and thousands of mine workers will lose their jobs. The chief minister has taken a stand that the ban is consistent with a high court direction issued earlier and he would prefer the ore to be used locally with value addition. The government’s policy is to encourage more steel mills to come up in the state and when that happens, the locals will get better-paid jobs.

Mining baron Janardhana Reddy has reacted favourably to the ban, causing some surprise. It is said that since most of his operations are in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, he would not mind an export ban in Karnataka. The others argue that he has several benami operations in Karnataka and the ban will impact his business, but he is playing politically safe by supporting the chief minister’s move.

The question is, in the long run, can Yeddyurappa afford to antagonise the Reddy brothers by taking steps that directly hurt their business interests? Are the Reddys as powerful as they were a year ago or do they find themselves isolated in the party? Finally, is the BJP ready to dump them to reclaim its image, unmindful of the repercussions on the government? The answers, at least for some of them, should not be too long in the coming.

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